Tag Archives: culture

what is this place?: arrival

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i’ve covered a number of topics in my 10 blogs thus far, but what i have yet to fully discuss is the “big picture” of what it means to experience India. it’s taken me this long to fully appreciate and gain an understanding of what exactly is going on around me, so i’m making this a series of posts dedicated to various experiences ingrained in daily lives of Indians which can initially be quite shocking coming from a Western society.

India is NOT for the faint of heart.

there. i’ve said it.

don’t get me wrong, i love this place and am very happy with my decision and luck to be able to stay for a while. but i won’t say it’s been easy.

for me, the first overwhelming experience was changing planes in the Delhi airport for the first time. as i had booked my international flights separately from my domestic Indian ones, i had to do this switch on my own accord.

quick aside: the Delhi airport consists of 3 terminals (one international, two domestic) which one must navigate by ground transportation in the form of a bus or taxi. if someone books a flight straight through with the same airline, the airlines arrange a bus transfer from one terminal to the next so people don’t miss connections. for the rest of us, the pre-paid taxi service is your best bet.
as i had put myself into the i-want-to-convince-myself-that-booking-with-an-economy-airline-really-is-cheaper-than-the-connection category, i was on my own.

customs and collecting my baggage all went smoothly and i even put on a happy face after falling directly on my bum the first time i tried to pick up and wear my oversized backpack. i found the counter for the prepaid taxis, paid with my freshly exchanged rupees, and walked toward the exit, receipt in hand.

through all of this, more and more nervous anxiety for my impending collision with India was building. as I walked through the automatic doors and into this new place, the thing I still remember most clearly was one of the last things i expected to shock me. the heat. i knew India was a hot place and took it as a given, but the wall of thick, blistering air i felt upon leaving the airport was like nothing i’d ever felt before. it was suffocating.

i have no idea what the temperature was that day, but it wouldn’t matter anyway because it was simply the kind of heat that can knock you out in one punch. i could feel it weighing my body down as soon as i stepped into it and even the ground beneath my feet (which was shaded) felt hot through my shoe. the objects around me radiated a kind of heat which would normally inform my instincts that i shouldn’t continue touching that thing for too much longer. like that point just before a curling iron is hot enough to burn skin. because of my limited physical experience with this intense level of heat outside of the kitchen, i had to consciously tell my brain that the items were not actually going to instantaneously burn me.

getting into the cab to take me from the international to the domestic terminal was not encouraging. the doors and roof of the tiny car were paper-thin and nearly rusted through.

the chaotic ride gave me my first glimpse of ground-level India in which i saw, in the middle of a highway, mind you, cows, in addition to lungi-clad construction workers in flip-flops and button-down shirts. all the while, a giant hair dryer blew in on me through every window.

welcome to India. namaste!

sunset orange…

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sunset orange…

…that is the theme color of our new home.

our official move-in happened on the 6th of June and we spent the first week sitting on the bare floor asking each other what we were going to do, what we should eat, and making lists of things to buy.

that first week we didn’t even have a gas connection despite the presence of the stove, so we ate out, ordered in, and lived like college students again for a few days.

slowly we got everything in place, got a 12kg gas cylinder, gave-in and bought a refrigerator (in hopes of selling it when we leave), had beds and basic kitchen supplies lent to us by some generous colleagues, and found a few nearby shops for everything else we could possibly need for a small, Indian apartment.

now that we generally have the things we need, life has been fairly routine and unexciting as we typically come back from work and lay around trying to resolve the constant question of what we should cook and whether or not we need to walk all the way to the grocery store first. this is typically followed by NC’s adventurous and creative cooking, leaving me the task of washing dishes and countertops. not that i’m complaining! i’m more than happy to clean (most of the time) if someone else does the mentally taxing task of deciding what and how to cook.

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this is from the front-door, our living area consists of two cotton mattresses arranged as a sitting area. you can see the kitchen in the back, and the open door is my room. just around the corner of the orange wall to the right is NC’s room.

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an enlargement of our very nice kitchen. though this will seem very small to those Americans in the audience, it’s actually quite spacious by Indian standards, and I consider us lucky that it’s so open and breathable with room for the refrigerator!

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my room!! small, but more than enough for me w/ a window and a nice shelving unit for all my STUFF (below)!

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…and that concludes the brief tour of my new place. when i get the chance (and remember), i’ll try to post some photos of the outside. for now, this is your window into my very Indian life 🙂

sarah

Aside

after my most recent post and email update, i realized that i don’t have any clear direction as to what i’m trying to convey through this blog. i know it can be quite boring to simply run through a list of things i did for the past month. this is like the number one thing that any ‘how to be a blogger’ list will tell you, don’t just keep a diary. after realizing this, and reading back through the email i sent out, i realized i must have confused the two. SO below is an excerpt from my recent email which is a much better fit for why i’m here, who i am, what i do, and better fits the bill for a blog post:

December and January have brought new thoughts into just how profoundly different my life now is from “typical.” I know I’ve said this before but as I think about it more, it’s so difficult to distinguish between my own ambition/work and the fates of the world that have made everything possible. I’ve never been a person who could ‘see’ very far into my own future (i may never be able to fully articulate what i want to do with my life until i’m doing it), so I never would have imagined that I’d actually be living abroad, working, and doing something good for the world all at the same time. Clearly I cannot put more weight on one force or another, nor can I ignore the immense amount of support I have received from family, friends, colleagues, advisors, and mentors, but it’s not so much the influence of any one factor that amazes me, but the sheer coming together of all of these things to put me where I am now.
In the beginning of 2011, I was looking forward to finally being finished with my bachelor’s degree and being “on my own” for real. I was very excited and felt prepared for the Cultural Immersion Project and was so excited to just get to India, the fact that it was fully funded with a scholarship certainly increased the excitement. Those were all fairly regular nearly-college-graduate type of thoughts. It was after about a month in India that things started to change, when the idea first popped into my head that I might actually get the chance to come back and work for the organization I was so happy to be a part of. From there it just seems like almost no time has passed, and yet I’ve been propelled into this other life that I didn’t expect. I’ve missed things about home and have had my moments of wondering “where the HELL am I?!” But overall, I couldn’t be happier, and cannot think of a place where I would get more satisfaction out of my job. The relationships I’ve built with many of the students in the school (my own and various others) are something I value more than anything else here. For many of them, home is not always a great place to be, and the toll it takes on some is truly heartbreaking. It is, however, amazing to see them acting as any other kid might within the walls and timings of the school. There are certainly specific cultural differences, but in many ways, “kids are kids,” and these have proven very deeply the extreme resilience of the human spirit. I worry about them everyday. My stomach twists and turns at the thought of something happening to any one of them, but the thing is they don’t and cannot live with fear, they go on. And generally they are happy, even if there are behavior issues (the bane of any traditionally run school). Just like any kid I know, they revel in getting a rise out of their teachers and coming up with more and more clever ways to play tricks on each other. (I’d argue Indian kids are much more creative in their antics than American kids). I absolutely cannot get through a day, no matter how irritated or unmotivated I feel, without some student in the corridor putting a HUGE smile on my face. Be it a tiny little kindergartener skipping happily through the corridors, or some cheeky 9th grader trying to write a [cheeky] poem. I revel in their joys and also in their sorrows. These kids are exactly why I’m here.
I even get choked up now (still 8 months from finishing my contract) thinking about the time when I will have to leave this place and these faces behind. Of course, I can’t stay forever, and wouldn’t want to. I’m very happy with the place I grew up and wouldn’t change where I come from. BUT this is definitely changing my outlook on career goals and plans. One major priority for my future will be finding ways to stay in contact with the amazing people here and keeping tabs on my students. All of whom I want to succeed more than anything in the world! I wish I could show them how far they could go because it’s difficult for them to see sometimes, but I know that at the very least this generation of learners will be able to be active members of society. I’m flabbergasted that I get to be a part of that.
Thank you friends for your support and encouragement 🙂
Sarah

i’m a bad blogger…

well… happy new year!

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…a late one that is… (clearly i’m not disciplined enough for this whole professional-blogger thing, sigh.)

celebrating the holiday season in India was certainly not the same as being in the U.S. yes, people (in Bangalore at least) do celebrate Christmas in India. but no, it’s not the same without snow, real christmas trees throwing needles all over the place, cold weather, crowded malls, hot chocolate, or eggnog. my loving family members replaced some of this by sending nice cards, christmas decorations, hot chocolate mixes, and nice smelling christmas candles to brighten up my room. the person i’m staying with did decorate for christmas and it looked fairly festive inside the house (christmas tree, stockings, stars), but it wasn’t the same without cold weather. it genuinely didn’t feel like Christmas time here because, though a ‘bangalorean’ will argue, the seasons barely change here, at least through the eyes of a midwestern girl who is used to seeing all 4 distinct seasons; hot, sticky summer to bone-chilling winter. it is certainly cooler in the month of december here, even getting down around 50 (F) at night, but it still gets up to nearly 80 (F) in the daytime and the sun can be unbearable as we are elevated a bit here and therefore closer to the sun.

though the holidays were exciting, december was a bit of a month of falling into routines. the nice thing that has finally happened for me at school is that things have suddenly become organized and started running fairly smoothly (as smoothly as is possible for a special educator). one might think this all would have happened earlier as I’ve now been here 4+ months, but as is proven to me every day, establishing norms and routines in a special education classroom that has a huge variety of needs to address, not to mention the logistics of scheduling students’ classes, meetings with teachers, and time to organize and sort through paperwork, is a never-ending test in time-management and organization. the fact that we are in India certainly doesn’t aid in any of the routines we are trying to establish. though as we recently added 1.5 new teachers (1 part-time, 1 full-time) to our room, the workload has been more evenly distributed and now there are more brains there for our regular brainstorming sessions.

here’s the christmas season in short;

  • school: the month of december brings exam time. first something called the Asset which is supposed to assess where the kids stand in the curriculum and compare to other schools. unfortunately there seems to only be a loose connection between the actual curriculum and that which the test is based on. but that’s the story of any teacher at home as well (think ISTEP here). the last week in december brought regular term exams, which means those of us in the LSC, had to create our own individualized exams for our kiddos. luckily a chunk of them will be moving back to regular grade level work in January and therefore will be able to take the regular monthly exams their classmates take (if all goes as planned). also, we got the chance to have a little end of term celebration which was almost entirely organized by LSC students themselves. gave me that little taste of Christmas enjoyment that kids at home have… except that here Santa is referred to as “that Christmas thata” (thata= old man in Kannada).
  • home: on christmas eve, the family i stay with invited all of the people who work in the building (watchmen, maids, cooks, etc.) to bring their families for a nice Christmas lunch. it was really wonderful to meet the families of the people who i see every day, and great to see them being served food for once. everyone crowded into the apartment downstairs and ate on the floor the traditional indian way; on mats, eating with hands. it was a really great way to kick off Christmas! otherwise, i had a fairly quiet Christmas day and spent the evening Skyping with family members. we spent new years in and had a few friends over to celebrate and eat awesome food!
  • outings: of course i couldn’t sit around the house for a whole week, so NC and i did go on a few outings. the highlight, i would say, was spending a couple of days visiting the hostel. we went once on Christmas Eve and saw all the decorations, then got to accompany the group to Bannerghatta National Park (the zoo of Bangalore). otherwise, we met a few friends for dinner and tried to relax and put work out of our minds for the week.

the start of January has brought excitement for the quickly approaching CH Global Conference which is being held in Bangalore this year. the school is getting all prepared with performances and committee plans to make the visit a good one for all of our international colleagues and for Christel Ma’am herself (as children so lovingly call her). i’m excited to see the various staff from around the world and to get the chance to see some familiar Indianapolis residents.

hope everyone is well and that the new year has brought new beginnings and a fresh start for all of you, many happy wishes for health and happiness!

vanakkam!
namaskara!
assalamu alaikum!
Sarah

Aside

i’ve been asked a few times now, exactly what language people speak here (“ÂżIndian?” “…no.”) so here is my explanation of that answer and why it’s difficult to learn.

short answer [i.e. you can read this paragraph, and have the basic question answered]: the “official” language of India is Hindi, but as this is traditionally, and historically a ‘northern’ language, it has not caught on in the whole of the nation, particularly in the south [where i am]. the language ‘officially’ spoken in Bangalore is Kannada (as Bangalore is located in the state of Karnataka), but as this large city is located fairly central to most of southern India, Tamil, Telugu, and Hindi are also spoken, as is Urdu for anyone practicing Islam. in my personal Bangalore experience, the average person on the street will speak a minimum of 3-4 languages, even if they cannot read/write in any of them. in Bangalore, because of a long history of British influence, a great many people speak at least a small enough amount of English that i can get around with fairly little struggle.

the longer answer and explanation:
first off, what you need to know is a brief lesson in history. before ‘india’ became a major center for trade with european countries, the sub-continent itself was extremely diverse. one could move only, say 100 km and the language, culture, and customs would be quite different. in India’s long civilized history the sub-continent experienced a long list of different ruling cultures which influenced various aspects of Indian life, to varying degrees. because of the diversity of the place, one could almost argue that this vast place could have been made into 30 different countries (though this would require a whole other post altogether, and a great deal of time i don’t have at the moment for research).

not only does each individual state have its own official language, but those states [like, say, Orissa] that have large populations of tribal people have unending numbers of ‘dialects’ that have sprouted off of that language some hundreds of years ago. in all, i’m told, the number of languages and dialects spoken within the borders of this nation may number in the 400’s. though i seriously wonder how one does a census of such a vast and sometimes obscure place.

my [personal] speculation for how so many languages have been sustained over so many dynasties, rulers, and kingdoms is that for one, there is a very high value placed on the learning and procurement of languages. traditionally, the first language an Indian child will speak is their “mother tongue.” they may also learn the “father tongue” if it is different, plus the local language which is often something else. let me give you an example (not an actual story, just a compilation of various students i have questioned about it); i ask a 9th grade student which languages he speaks and how he learned each of them. his mother tongue is Tamil as his mother was born there, he also speaks Tulu (learned while living in Mangalore), Kannada – as the village he has lived most of his life is in Karnataka, he also speaks Malyalam as it is related to Tulu and he once lived in a place where it was spoken, somewhere along the way he picked up Telugu, and at CHI the students begin learning English in the 1st grade. in case you weren’t counting, that’s SIX DIFFERENT LANGUAGES. yes, maybe the person is not completely fluent in all of these languages and certainly not literate in all, but the thought of just speaking even 5 different languages in a half-way decent manner is incomprehensible to most Americans at least. (i could probably write a whole other blog about why i don’t think this should be the case, but i digress)

as i mentioned, the official language in Bangalore is Kannada, but Tamil, Telugu, English and Hindi are also common. the most common next to Kannada is definitely Tamil. and at CHI, a great many of the students claim Tamil as their mother tongue. politically and culturally, Tamilians are very proud and attached to their language and Tamilians have moved to give it a higher status in India as it has some 60 million speakers.
because of all of this, learning one specific language is difficult. though it would be advantageous for me to learn Hindi if i want to travel in the rest of the country, learning, and especially practicing Hindi, is not particularly easy in Bangalore. my current project is learning Tamil, as the children at school get extremely excited if i can even come close to mimicking something in their mother tongue [which they get scolded for speaking in school or on the bus]. personally though, where possible, i try to use their language, be it Tamil or Kannada, when i am teaching vocabulary because i am interested in attempting to pick up a few words myself. it also engages them more if i take an interest in what they speak.

well, there is your long answer, i’ll let you know when i actually pick something worthwhile up and can actually communicate 🙂
also; soon to come is a post on “Indian English” which is another animal altogether.

Namaskara,
Sarah

what the **** language do they speak there?! …and are you learning it?

now for 1,000 words on October…

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oops 🙂

obviously i seem to have been neglecting my blog and as one might expect in India, quite a bit has happened since september!

here is a quick run-through of all i’ve been up to in the past month and a half:

  • the first week of October was spent on the South Indian holiday of Dhasara. since we had an entire week to ourselves, NC and i decided to spend a couple of days in Pondicherry. Pondy was originally a French port and the small area near the ocean is very reminiscent of a small european town. many people even still speak French here. though, as is most of india, Pondy was most definitely HOT. though we got some relief from the heat by visiting the home of an acquaintance which was right on the beach and very peaceful with a nice sea-breeze. sitting on the beach and putting my feet in the water was one of the most relaxing things i’ve done in a while. i definitely wish i could have stayed there a bit longer, but we came back on a friday to greet a friend of NC who was just starting a tour of india. it was nice for us to show someone else around for a while, made me realize how much i’ve learned about where i am and how to navigate the city.
  • after a week back to the grind of school, we spent a nice weekend socializing with some school colleagues and visiting homes of some of our students. its a truly unique and enjoyable experience to be welcomed into an indian home, and most of the time they cannot wait to stuff you full of biryani, or chicken curry, or kebabs, or just rassam and rice. and obviously something is wrong with you if you deny a second helping, literally they will pile your plate again and say you don’t like the food if it’s not sparkling clean by the end. we also got the amazing experience of going to our first official indian festival. though a little late for Dhasara itself, we went with a colleague to the place where he has lived his entire life in Bangalore for the most unique experience i think i’ve had yet. we didn’t even arrive at the thing until 11pm and apparently it was “just starting.” I can only liken it to a stationary parade with “floats” built and funded by family and neighbor groups. each with a special seat for a hindu deity statue. apparently at some point in the night the floats actually make a trip around the central blocks of the area… but we were there until 4am and saw no movement. YES i was out on an indian street, at a festival, until 4AM!! the strangest part was the families with small children were also out enjoying festivities, shops were open selling snacks and chai, and large drum groups were egging on festivities and copious amounts of dancing. it was beyond incredible, to say the least.
  • the second half of October was slightly less exciting except that we had two working SATURDAYS in a row which was painful to say the least and one thing i don’t appreciate about indian work culture (working a couple saturdays in a month is standard for most jobs).
  • Diwali, however was a bit of excitement in that final week of the month. being the Hindu “festival of lights,” Diwali involves copious amounts of oil lamps, candles, and especially fireworks (aka “crackers”). in the way people celebrate, the holiday is similar to an American Christmas celebration in that it involves getting together with close family and friends. Hindus perform special poojas (prayer ceremonies) on this day, burning oil lamps to invite the goddess Lakshmi inside the house, and bursting crackers to frighten evil spirits away from the home. i got to spend this lovely holiday with a small group of friends in the home of a Gujarati couple (Gujarat is a state in western india). the evening was definitely enjoyable and almost made up for my missing the 4th of July at home, though there weren’t any large gatherings for professional fireworks displays. we had a very nice “savory and sweet” meal and enjoyed watching everyone set off extremely loud and bright crackers on the street.
  • unfortunately diwali was followed by yet another working saturday and utter disorientation as to what day it actually was (we had 3 days off for diwali, then 2 working days, then 1 sunday) especially since the following week we had tuesday off for the celebration of Karnataka’s statehood.
  • throughout all of these weeks, NC and i have started spending sundays at a boy’s hostel where about 10 CHI students stay. the hostel is very near to CHI itself and about a 20 minute walk. we have also been commissioned by the Father there to help a few of the older boys (who do not attend CHI) with improving their English. the time we spend at this place is like nothing else i’ve experienced in india. for one, the place is quite literally in the middle of nowhere, with a small, rambling, mile-long dirt road, for which “pot-holed” is not nearly an accurate descriptor. the hostel itself is a fairly large 4-story building that has the beginnings of a school within its walls. thus far, the school only extends to the 3rd grade, hence older boys go to CHI or other nearby schools or PUCs for the older ones (in India, Pre-University College is the format for the 11th and 12th grades). i’ve found that the utter peacefulness that exists at the hostel is an extremely welcome break from the chaos of the city. also, there is a certain amount of simplicity of life there that makes it a breath of fresh air. the boys all have daily jobs/chores and there is a fairly regular schedule followed which daily includes recreation (usually football [soccer for my american friends], sometimes cricket). though it’s not perfect, as nothing is, the work that the Father does here is nothing less than highly admirable. the boys that stay there come for a wide variety of reasons; many are from small villages and were looking for better education, some want to become priests, others come from homes that simply cannot support them in some way. whatever the reason they are there, most of them refer to one another as ‘brothers’ and treat each other as such. the family camaraderie is what makes it so enjoyable to visit and to see some of the students outside of the school atmosphere.
  • most recently, this past week the school celebrated Children’s Day with a “special assembly” put on by the teachers. yes, i participated in a short indian dance with some of the other teachers. the program was enjoyable, though i did feel bad for the students as they pitifully wilted in the hot sun for nearly 2 hours, but i believe it was successful none-the-less, and i discovered just how musically and theatrically talented some of my colleagues actually are.

as you can see, the month of october was a banner month for indian culture and experiences. i have immensely enjoyed most everything. not to say i haven’t had my bouts with homesickness, but keeping myself busy has gone a long way in keeping my sanity. i have friends and especially NC to thank for keeping me centered and focused on why i’m here… CHI and the kids. that’s why i came back and why i can keep myself balanced. i love what i’m doing and am rewarded everyday with the relationships and academic successes i see in my students. more on all this later, hopefully you all can feel updated now.

thanks for reading 🙂

Sarah

import: quick update

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Dear friends, family, and strangers,

Here is an update of the things I did for the past few weeks, I’ll leave this as my update and try to keep up for the next couple weeks.

3rd week I was here I went to a region called Coorg. This is a rainforest region that is covered in coffee plantations. I stayed at a really cool place called the Rainforest Retreat, which is an all-organic and environmentally friendly plantation. Unfortunately my first day there was spent recovering from the long, extremely bumpy bus ride and a stomach issue from the previous night’s dinner. It did turn out to be a very nice place to recover though. The second day I was there I was really able to enjoy the scenery and go on a couple of hikes as well as explore the plantation itself (including having to quickly pull two leeches off my ankles, eeekkk!). It was all beautiful and I will post pictures soon 🙂

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import: food

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thus far, food has been somewhat difficult to describe as i generally am uncertain as to exactly what it is that i am eating. i am nearly certain that i am essentially vegetarian at this point. some of the vegetables are recognizable; peas, carrots, green beans, some sort of potato, chic peas, okra… the rest are generally unknown. one that i now know the “common” name of is drumsticks… some sort of stem which is stewed until the inside is soft. the first time i had it, i clearly had no idea how to eat it… the outer layer is extremely fibrous, not meant to be eaten, and impossible to chew (as i found the hard way). the proper way to eat it is to slice open one side (which comes easily after it’s stewed) and pull the soft inside out with your teeth or a spoon. the second time i had it someone instructed me and it was a relatively generic, soft green thing, slightly like well-cooked green beans.

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